What Are the Health Risks to the US from the Nuclear Crisis in Japan?


What are you telling your patients about risks and dangers amid rising public concern over possible effects from radiation exposure from Japanese reactors?

What are you telling your patients about risks and dangers amid rising public concern over possible effects from radiation exposure from Japanese reactors?

As the news reports of efforts to contain the crisis at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan depict a steadily worsening situation (Japan’s nuclear safety agency “has increased the alert level at its damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant from four to five, grading the disaster at the same level as the Three Mile Island accident in the US in 1979”), many patients in the US are expressing concern over possible health effects from exposure to radiation from the damaged plants. Physicians and other health care providers, especially those on the West Coast, are reporting a sharp increase in questions from patients about the risks of radiation exposure or sickness, the availability of treatments, and potential long-term health effects. CBS News and other outlets are even reporting a wave of “panic buying” of potassium iodide pills, which protect the thyroid gland from radiation and cancer caused by radioactive iodine.

However, the public’s overreaction to the dangers of radiation exposure appear to be unfounded, with numerous experts noting that the health risks to the public are quite low. Dr. Jonathan Fielding, director of public health for Los Angeles County, told the AP that “Radiation is one of those words that get everybody scared, like `plague.’ But we're 5,000 miles away." The same report noted that experts are cautioning that “the amount of any fallout that wafts across the Pacific Ocean to the U.S. coast will be so diluted that it will not pose any health risk, officials say. Wind, rain and salt spray will help clean the air over the vast ocean between Japan and the United States.” In fact, even though the EPA has deployed increased numbers of radiation detectors throughout the country, especially on the West Coast, initial readings show “tiny amounts of radiation have reached California.” According to “a diplomat who has access to radiation tracking by the U.N.'s Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization, the situation is “not dangerous in any way — about a billion times beneath levels that would be health threatening.”

National Nuclear Security Administration spokesman Damien LaVera told AP that “The models show what happens if the situation gets worse, if the winds change, or if it rains to predict what could happen. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has said they see no radiation at harmful levels reaching the United States, and we're not seeing anything that is inconsistent with that.”

According to an ABC News report, “Radiation sickness is very rare, and it is triggered only when humans are exposed to extremely strong doses of radiation, far higher than presently found even close to the damaged plant.” Dr. Peter Hosemann, an assistant professor of nuclear engineering at UC Berkeley told ABC News that based on what’s happened so far, even the risk in Japan may be overplayed, saying that "We will see increases in dose levels in Tokyo, but I am confident it will be low enough to be not a health risk.” The report quotes information from the National Institutes of Health on the levels of radiation exposure that cause radiation sickness: “radiation sickness can be caused when the total body is exposed to 1000 of radiation. If humans are exposed to more than 4000 millisieverts of radiation, half are likely to die. Any more that 6000 millisieverts, doctors say, is untreatable and leads to almost certain death.” By way of comparison, the workers at the Fukushima plant have been prevented from exposure to more than 250 millisieverts, which “should not cause radiation sickness, [but may] marginally increase the risk of cancer.”

One report said that the highest rate of radiation exposure measured 15 miles away from the plant by the Japanese Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency so far has been 80 millisieverts per hour. This is “in the range of one CT scan," according to Wolfram Laub, director of medical physics at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland.

**See the comemnts below for more on the levels of radiation measured by monitoring stations near the Fukushima nuclear plants.**

Despite these reassurances, patients around the country remain concerned. We’ve compiled a brief collection of online resources that can help you answer any questions about the health risks from the radiation leaks in Japan.

Primer on Radiation Sickness from the Mayo Clinic

Here, you’ll find information on the symptoms and causes of radiation sickness, tests and diagnostic criteria, and treatments.

What Are the Symptoms of Radiation Sickness?

This Q&A with NBC chief medical editor Nancy Snyderman, MD, provides brief answers to the frequently asked questions from patients. Snyderman covers everything from symptoms and long-term radiation effects to myths and facts about treatment.

Fact Sheet on the Biological Effects of Radiation

This resource from the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission offers useful background information on the effects of radiation exposure, placing it into context by explaining how much exposure we receive from the environment every day.

Q&A on the Health Effects of Radiation Poisoning

This Bloomberg News report also offers useful information.

HCPLive wants to know:

Have your patients been asking you for information about the possible health risks from radiation exposure from the damaged Japanese reactors?

What precautions, if any, have you been advising your patients to take?

Have your patients asked you for potassium iodide pills?

What resources would you recommend to a patient or colleague who wants to know more about radiation sickness and the effects of exposure to radiation?

How would you rate the performance of the news media in reporting on this story and on the potential health risks to patients in the US?

Please leave a comment below!

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